In the past few years, there has been an idea in Christian circles that whenever I have heard it has felt to me like fingernails on a chalkboard. It revolves around the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5.22-23. The ideas goes along the lines of this: if the Spirit is as work in your life, you will have all of these things: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If these things are not evident in your life, well, you are either an immature Christian or the Spirit really isn’t at work in your life.
Allow me to bring in a real problem with this as it relates to mental illness of various forms. I have have the symptoms of PTSD, which means I struggle with things such as depression and anxiety. While I have gotten better over the years, I would not define my life as joyful or living in peace, as I still have to deal with many of the long-term outcomes of the events that contributed to my trauma. If my life can be consider to lack joy or peace in a substantive amount, would you say that I am not lead by the Spirit? I am a loving, kind, and generous person who is faithful, has exercised self-control in my life and I tend towards gentleness, although my anger can occasionally when I feel like I see manipulation or arrogance. I would go so far as to say that the research I recently did for my Master’s thesis would not have come about if the work of God was not deeply in my heart, giving me the heart that lead me to come up with the findingds that I did. There isn’t a doubt in my heart that I am a Spirit-led Christian, but yet, I would not say that joy and peace would describe my life right about now.
Allow me to bring up another problem as it pertains to the contrast between the fruit of the Spirit and the deeds of the flesh. Are those people who are angry and outraged about the killed of George Floyd and protesting (without rioting) doing the deeds of the flesh because their protests are an expression of angry, it can be said to create quarrels, we see people dividing up into factions as a result, etc. Would we turn around and judge those brothers and sisters in Christ as being in the flesh because they are protesting, in part due to the anger of injustice?
If in the deepest recesses of you heart you would deny the work of the Spirit in either my life or the lives my brothers or sisters protesting, may I say, with utter boldness and honesty: I don’t want whatever spirit you would seem to be peddling. If the spirit you peddle is only at work in the absence of trauma or injustice, that that is not God’s Spirit.
Now, I will admit I am speaking with a bit of hyperbole, but to make a point. The idea that Galatians 5.22-23 operates as sort of a checklist for the evidences of the Christian life is, to me, a bit problematic, both in terms of theological application but also, as I will also attempt to demonstrate, in exegesis. I would suggest the fundamental problem is that we interpret the fruit of the Spirit as either specific types of states and behaviors rather than as desires.
We need to take a step back to Galatians 5.16-17. There Paul contrasts the way of life of the Spirit with the flesh. The key concept that the two are contrasted is in terms of desire. When Paul talks about desire, we need to be clear thar he wouldn’t be talking about things we think are pleasing, or our values, or various other sort of other positive emotional experiences. He is talking motivationally: what is it that people who are lead by the Spirit and lead by the flesh take action to do and obtain? So, when we move to the deeds of the flesh in 5.19-21, he isn’t describing what people of the flesh do. He is describing the various type of lifestyles and behaviors that motivate people.
Applying this to Galatians 5.22-23, we can understand Paul to be describing what life lead by the Spirit is about: it is motivated towards love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The one who is living their life by the Spirit is motivated to pursue these things, with relates both to inner and outer realities. This understanding is coherent with the cruficixion of one’s desires in Christ mentioned in Galatians 5.24.
Furthermore, the agricultural metaphor is used not to describe the Spirit’s agency as the cultivator of these virtues, so much as the One who guides us in our reaping and sowing (cf. Gal. 6.7-8). Also, when Paul says in 5.25 to conform/follow the Spirit (στοιχῶμεν), we can understand the synergism between Spirit and believer is pedagogical rather than a matter of direct agency.
This interpretation helps to explain some of the references to the Torah in 5.18 and 5.23b. In some Second Temple Jewish literature like 4 Maccabees, the Torah was understood as effective in helping people to control their passions. In that light, Paul’s discourse would be about saying that because one is under the Spirit, one doesn’t need to attempt to try to use the Torah to curb one’s passions and desires.
An distinct advantage of this interpretation is that it allows us to more readily connect Galatians 5.16-23 with Romans 8.5-6, where Paul describes the mindset of the flesh and the mindset of the Spirit that directs people towards either death or life and peace.
So, in conclusion, my sister and brothers in Christ protesting racial injustices are motivated by the Spirit because they are seeking peace/shalom, not just for themselves but for others. Even if they may show anger and their actions may create divisions, those are not things they are motivated to seek, but they happen to be outcomes that come out. I myself seek to have a life of joy and peace/shalom for myself and also for others. Even if that is not the outcome of my life yet, it is the desire of the Spirit that guides me, even when the pains of what I deal with may make be inclined to instinctual react in others ways. The desires of our hearts are for what the Spirit desires. So, do not judge us spiritually by the outcomes from one situation to the next, but by what it is that our actions as a whole are shown to pursue after. If our desires do not match the outcomes, we would be the type of people who are willing to learn what it is we can do to reach for those desired outcomes, so far as it doesn’t entail silencing or containing our lives for the mere comfort of others.
If I may suggest, I think this is what Jesus was referring to when He said “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied.”